If there were any Tibetan war nerds around in 1950, which is kind of hard to imagine, then it must have been a hard day for them. But they should have seen it coming, because the Brits had invaded Tibet just a half-century before—and they weren’t nearly as nice to the Tibetans. I keep telling you guys, you’ve got the completely wrong idea about the Brits. You’ve been watching too many of those BBC comedies where everybody’s cute and harmless. The Brits, up to the mid-20th-century, were stone killers, the most ruthless conquerors of the past thousand years.
They invaded Tibet in 1904 basically because they were bored. I’m serious. They owned everything on the planet worth having, so they were always having to invent new “menaces” to get funding for more invasions, grabbing the places they hadn’t considered worth taking in their earlier waves of conquest. So in the late 1800s they started talking up the Russian “threat” to swarm over the Himalayas and take away India. That was such utter crap that even the Brits talking up the threat must have had a laugh about it over their port, back at the officers’ club. Russia was weak, so weak that the Japanese crushed it on land and sea in 1905. The British knew Russia was in no position to threaten India. What they wanted was an easy conquest that would produce lots of medals, honors, stuff to wear on their chests in the London social season so they could snag an heiress and never have to work. So they invaded Tibet.
The guy who ran that invasion, Francis Younghusband, was quite a piece of work himself. One of those India-born Brits, who were generally fiercer and crazier even than the homegrown English. And he had that other feature that makes for a really ruthless conqueror: he was, like his biographers say, “deeply religious.” If you hear that about a guy who’s about to invade your country, go down to the basement, hoard lots of water and canned goods, and try to make yourself invisible for the next few years, because it’s not going to be pretty.
Younghusband marched into Tibet in December 1903 with a force of Sikhs and Gurkhas—pretty scary mix, like rottweiler plus pit bull. And the Gurkhas were definitely the pit bulls in that pair. Sikhs are very tough but not blood-crazy. The Gurkhas were not only devoted lovers of knife-work, especially on POWs, but ancient enemies of the Tibetans. It didn’t take much to push them to a massacre. The Tibetans knew the British were dangerous and tried not to resist at all. But as the British force pushed farther and farther into Tibet, the local commanders decided to resist. That was a mistake. This wasn’t Tony Blair’s cool Britannia they were dealing with. On March 31, 1904, Younghusband encountered a Tibetan militia force of about 2000 guarding a pass near Gyantse. He must have had a hard time keeping a straight face or wiping the drool from his lips, thinking about the medals he’d get for this one, because the Tibetans were armed either with spears and swords or at best with matchlock muskets. That’s right: the kind of 17th-century firearm that won’t fire unless you apply the smouldering wick to the firing pan. Younghusband decided to play with the poor fuckers he was facing. He said, “My friends, my friends, what’s all this hostility? Why dees paranoia? Here, I’ll tell MY soldiers to take the bullets out of their rifles, and you tell YOUR soldiers to put out the flame of their matchlocks.” The Tibetans, who had no idea that Younghusband’s troops had modern repeating rifles, put out their matchlocks. Younghusband then ordered his troops to open fire. 1300 Tibetans were killed, with almost no British casualties.
Younghusband thought it was a great triumph. But this was already late in the Imperial era and the people back home had had enough of this kind of triumph; in fact, it sort of made them sick. The whole thing was hushed up, and remains hushed up to this day—ask any Brit you know if they ever heard of their invasion of Tibet and I guarantee they’ll plead ignorance. It’s probably better that way, makes it easy to put one of those “Free Tibet” rising-sun stickers on your Land Rover without feeling like a hypocrite.